Last week, I wrote about Pascal’s famous wager about the existence of God. He doesn’t try to prove whether God exists or not. Rather, he takes a much more pragmatic approach: we can choose to live either: 1) as if God exists; or 2) as if there is no God. If we choose option 1 and are correct, we gain everything. But if we choose option 1 and are wrong, we have lost nothing, since death ends everything. If we choose option 2 and are correct, we gain nothing, since we all die. But if we choose option 2 and are wrong, then we have lost everything.
Some of my friends and correspondents wrote to me after that column. They all asked a version of the same question: “Which God are you betting on?”
That’s an important question. It also told me that I made a bunch of assumptions as I wrote that column about the nature and character of God.
One friend wrote (slightly edited), “I have struggled with this for most of my life. Partly because some people think they know what ‘God’ should be and try to force that vision on the rest of us. You know—the big white guy with a long beard who is continuously making note of our sins. This just wasn’t working for me. When I was a kid, my grandma sat me down to discuss my issues with organized religion. When I told her I had problems with how the church talked about God, she asked if I could believe that “God is love”. I told her honestly, that was all I could believe.”
I get it. I don’t bet on that kind of God either. So let me be as clear as I can be what I mean when I say “God”.
I don’t believe in a God who notes our sins and is just waiting for us to screw up. I surely don’t believe in that childish and threatening “old white guy with a beard up in the sky” kind of God.
I don’t believe in a God who hates certain groups of people. Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas City, for example, proclaims loudly that God hates gays. Other Christians proclaim that “unless you accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Saviour, you’re going to hell”. The God I know welcomes all and invites all to enter the divine embrace. This God seeks us out and calls us home.
When I was a child, we attended the Dutch Reformed Church. Every Sunday in church we heard preaching that told us we were the elect, the chosen people, the ones whom God loved. The corollary was that others who didn’t belong to our group were not chosen, were not loved by God. I don’t believe in that kind of narrow, tribalist God.
Some churches proclaim that God only ordains men to lead. Only men can be pastors. Only men can be priests. I don’t believe in that kind of patriarchal God.
Some Christians say that if you’re not a Christian, you’re bound for eternal hellfire. They say that the Bible clearly teaches that God violently wipes out unbelievers—which for them means Christians. If you’re not part of the “in” group, you’re destined for eternal torment. I don’t believe in that kind of tribal God and I will say to them that they need to learn to read the Bible more carefully and comprehensively. God is so much larger than that. No single belief can capture the heart of the divine.
On the other hand, there are preachers and evangelists who preach a prosperity gospel. They say that if you believe in God, you will be rewarded, you will become rich, you will get everything you ever wanted. I don’t believe in that kind of God either. It’s not true to the Bible. It seems to me to reflect human greed more than divine compassion.
Now, these descriptions may seem like stereotypes to you, cartoonish characterizations of God. The trouble is that there are Christians and churches who hold these images of God. They are “in” and everyone else is “out”. If you don’t believe the way they do, then you don’t stand a chance.
I don’t believe in any of these visions of God. I would not bet on that kind of God if it were the last thing I could do.
So, what kind of God do I believe in? I saw something a while ago which says it perfectly for me. I’m not a Christian because I want the reward of heaven. I’m not a Christian because I’m running from hell. I am a Christian because the character of Jesus Christ is so compelling to me that I want to spend my life chasing it, embodying it, and sharing it.
The God I bet on is a God who is marked by compassion, love, grace, and openness. That’s the kind of life I want to live. The God I trust reaches out to all with an invitation to live into the fullness of our humanity. God welcomes all and spurns none. God is marked by a diversity and variety which is huge enough to include all people of every tribe, every nation, every orientation, every inclination.
The God in whom I believe calls me and all people “friends”. As Jesus says in John 15, “I no longer call you servants; I call you friends if you do what I command.” And what does Jesus command? That we love. Nothing more. Nothing less.
As people who love the world and all its creatures, we are friends of a God who seeks nothing but the best for us and all others.
That’s the kind of God on whom I bet. I stake my life on living as a friend of God, a beloved and precious part of God’s wise and gracious purposes for all of creation.
Yme Woensdregt is a retired Anglican priest living in Cranbrook